Earlier in the year I walked from Kings Wood in Croydon to High Barnet. The purpose of my walk was to celebrate London Tree Week by crossing the city from South to North while remaining under as much canopy cover as I could. With over 8 million trees across 65,000 woodlands, London is the world's largest urban forest and trekking through the capital's green chains and corridors I saw deer, foxes, woodpeckers and snakes... but I did not see or hear a single child in any of the woodland areas and it was a sunny day in the school holidays.
My transect demonstrates what the statistics show. Research by Natural England reveals that 1 in 7 parents have not taken their child to a natural place (such as a park, nature area or the wider countryside) in the previous year. The reasons why are as complex and varied as there are children, parents and places; but thinking natural places are too expensive, too far away or not for children are frequently mentioned by these parents. Tim Gill's Sowing the Seeds report for the Greater London Authority also exposes that initiatives to connect children to nature only reach approximately 4% of London's children.
Like many other members of the Wild Network, I am deeply concerned about the impact this is having on children's mental health, physical health, development, learning, education, wellbeing, quality of play and opportunities to connect with friends, family, community and nature.
I think we should make London a National Park.
This is a big, radical and disruptive idea for London. We need a big idea like this if we are to galvanise a generation of children and parents to value wild time, outdoor play and learning. Making London a National Park is a challenging idea that invites us to dream and crucially, will give us a common sense, identity and vision for the capital. It confronts our assumptions about what a city is, what a park is and dares us to rethink what the city is for.
You may be thinking that London can't be a National Park because it does not fit the current legislation, rules and categories and you would be right. London may be inspirational, distinctive and a major habitat, but it is not "country" and many people would argue it is not "beautiful" as is required by the 1949 National Parks Act. On grounds of representation, I think it should do though. 10% of England is recognised by Natural England as urban habitat and this is the only major terrestrial habitat type that is not properly represented in our family of National Parks. London's urban habitat is not only rich and ecologically diverse, it is also incredibly valuable and worth protecting for the 8 million (going on 11 million by 2050) people and 13,000 species of wildlife who live in the capital.
Instead of asking how people have previously classified National Parks, we should be looking at what National Parks are for. In England and Wales National Parks are funded by central Government to:
1) conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and
2) promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks by the public.
When there is a conflict between these two purposes, conservation takes priority. According to National Parks UK while working on these aims, National Park Authorities are also required to “foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the National Park”. What if we were to take this approach and apply it to a city like London?
The 1,700+ people and 85+ organisations that are backing this idea so far are not calling for London to become a traditional National Park. Our proposal is for a new kind of National Park called a National Park City. I presented this idea at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and created a buzz as I explained how this new kind of park would have the potential to engage us all, at all levels. A partnership rather than a traditional authority, we a National Park City would not need the planning powers that other National Parks use. Instead, a Greater London National Park would inspire, inform and coordinate best practice. It would challenge all Londoners to respond to the idea of the National Park City and in the process, inspire parents, teachers, planners, builders, politicians, gardeners and us all to rethink our relationship with nature and our city.
A National Park City would clearly be different from a rural National Park. I think National Park Cities would become urban gateways to the rural National Parks, helping new people to visit and enjoy the protected areas responsibly.
While rural National Parks are largely about preservation and conservation, National Park Cities have the exciting opportunity to unlock potential and bring wildlife back to places where habitats have been lost. The London Wetland Centre at Barnes is a beautiful large scale and inspirational example of this, but there is an opportunity for millions of us to respond at a much smaller and more local level. 3.8 million gardens cover 24% of London and these are a perfect location for engaging families with nature on their doorstep in a safe, comfortable and creative way. As suggested by the London Wildlife Trust there it's an incredible opportunity to enable families to turn these spaces into mini nature reserves. For idle gardeners like me, knowing that planting the right wildflowers can help your children learn, increase your gardens biodiversity, make your garden look more beautiful and position your laziness as idle stewardship is not only positive and potentially liberating, but also a relief. 47% of London is green space and the majority of this is managed by social landlords. This too presents an incredible opportunity to improve London and protect its green spaces.
Gardens are just one example of where a Greater London National Park would be a great vehicle for engaging people. The Park would also have the potential to improve health, wealth, recreation, business and green infrastructure too.
Of course, the National Park City idea is not limited to London. Indeed, a group has just started campaigning in Glasgow.
We started this counter-intuitive campaign in April 2014 and are quickly gaining momentum. In addition to the names on our petition, we have growing support across the main political parties and the backing of Chris Packham, George Monbiot, Sir Terry Farrell CBE, Architect, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Judy Ling Wong and many others. Together we are calling for the Mayor of London to publish a report into the costs, benefits and options for the park.
Together we can make London the world's first National Park City, but we need your help. Please take a moment to:
1) Sign our petition.
2) Sign your organisation up as a Friend of the campaign.
3) Join us for a special event to Reimagine London as a National Park at Southbank. As a member of the Wild Network you can get a ticket for just £10 by following this link.
Please do connect with us if you have any questions, thoughts or ideas at @LondonNP #GLNP on Twitter.